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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Kristina company.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

A contemporary musical with enough lush grandeur to fill Carnegie Hall - and I mean with sweeping sound, not with bodies - is rare enough. That its creators are the same duo responsible for Chess and Mamma Mia! only makes the achievement more stunning. Yes, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus have accomplished the unthinkable with Kristina, their 1995 Swedish hit tuner (originally titled Kristina fran Duvemala) that's finally arrived in New York and is playing at Carnegie Hall for one more performance tonight. It's a musical you don't just want to listen to: During the better portions of its score - of which there are many - you feel you have to.

As played by the upliftingly enormous American Theatre Orchestra under Paul Gemignani's baton, Andersson's music captures everything that's richest about this adaptation of Vilhelm Moberg's "The Emigrants" novels. Establishing in awkwardly hopeful melody the challenges and persecutions of people in mid-19th-century Sweden and the frontier spirit they adopted when a group of them resettled in the United States, Andersson finds an appropriately oversized lyricism that borders on opera but remains strictly within the unapologetically staid world of European musical theatre. This approach doesn't guarantee a great deal of warmth, or any real sense of the unique character of America in the 1850s, but it's a fine approximation that convinces you it at least understands what's going on in its own language.

Except for a few uncomfortably extended electric chords betraying Andersson's 1970s rock roots, the score behaves itself, trusting most in a hefty coterie of strings to communicate its romantic and Romantic ideals about life in the Old and New World. Songs that summon up visions of sun-parched farms, unsteady church services, roiling sea voyages, and personal devastation in the Promised Land don't skimp on the size or scope needed to make even the smallest emotions feel like the beginning and end of the world.

So three solid, American cheers must go to Andersson for ensuring that the music conveys so much. And it's a good thing it does: Without it, this show would say nothing at all.

As dramatically inert as it is aurally sumptuous, the Carnegie Hall Kristina is in every way other than its music typical of the late-1980s/early-1990s "pop opera" that won't go away no matter how many titles - like A Tale of Two Cities, The Pirate Queen, or for that matter Chess - bomb. Alternately incomprehensible and irrelevant, with English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer (working from Ulvaeus's originals) that speak all the music's lofty sentiments in earth-chained language of no discernible consequence, this show is difficult to follow and impossible to care about.

The format of the genre is so inherently chilly and distant that only a few titles ever emerged from it in any real way - The Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables (for which Kretzmer also did the lyrics), and Miss Saigon were the exceptions, not the rules. It's when faced with something like this that you see what so many of the other entries lacked: an intimacy of character, of situation, that draws you in and lets you experience the world through other eyes, much the way the most significant plays and musicals of the past always have.

Here you're never given that chance. Director Lars Rudolfsson uses scrolling projections to set the scenes ("Some of their names can still be read on crumbling tombstones..."), and someone will occasionally step out of the action to gloss over several months of happenings to make sure you understand what sets up the next song. But it's those in-between moments that encourage character, comedy, and bewitchment. Without them, you get a stagy, stodgy, and usually boring treatment of a story that - so the music insists - should be anything but.

Helen Sjöholm and Russell Watson.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The tale focuses on four of the emigrating Swedes: Kristina (Helen Sjöholm, who originated the role at the Malmo Music Theatre 14 years ago); her husband, Karl Oskar (Russell Watson); his brother, Robert (Kevin Odekirk); and Kristina's prostitute-turned-enemy-turned-friend, Ulrika (Louise Pitre, who was the original star of Mamma Mia! on Broadway). But aside from sing, they don't do much. Kristina gives birth several times, once with poor results, and sings the obligatorily 11-o'clock "I need you" number, "You Have to Be There" (which received a standing ovation Wednesday night). Karl Oskar gets a stove. Robert goes off searching for gold and returns with yellow fever. Ulrika falls in love with the local preacher, Jackson (Walter Charles), probably because he inspires the only halfway-comic number, "American Man." And they all have a building party early in the second act.

The writers assume that these people's struggles are, by dint of their existence, exciting enough to be narrated through without loss of audience involvement. (My favorite example: the drive-by explanation of death by oatmeal.) That's simply not the case. Perhaps Swedish theatregoers, who are likely as well versed in the original novels as Americans are The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, didn't need the context because they knew it already, and were able to assimilate the action as a "greatest hits" concert based on Moberg's ideas. Things still work on that level, but that doesn't make this effective musical storytelling for the rest of the world.

Not that there's much wrong with the cast. Sjöholm does committed work as the stouthearted Kristina, singing beautifully through a towering songstack of ballads, belt tunes, and anthems pockmarked with unparalleled emoting potential. Watson's voice is even stronger, a commanding dramatic tenor that lends firm and necessary authority to a somewhat reluctant romantic lead that becomes a major transformative force. Odekirk is spectacular as the tragic Robert, wrenching every conceivable drop of pathos from his inch-deep character. Pitre does her limited best with an uninteresting role that wouldn't make it easy for anyone, though one does hope most actresses wouldn't make the narration more interesting than the character.

It's not entirely her fault. No one has anything to play in the traditional sense, so all the performances are just variations of the same basic quest to spin gold from fishing wire. That's why the music is so crucial: It lends the material the gravitas it sorely needs it just to stay afloat. That the show does, for two hours and 45 minutes, without even the threat of a collapse despite its featherweight foundation, is the finest imaginable testament to the strength of Andersson's compositions. They're real, they're fantastical, and they're theatrical, all at once - an elemental part of what the best music theatre should be.

They're not enough to make everything work theatrically, or even suggest that a fully staged production might fare better. (Connecting songs or book scenes not heard at Carnegie Hall, those might help; the inevitable thinning out of the ensemble and orchestra definitely wouldn't.) They are, however, sufficiently thrilling to restore your faith in humanity's ability to recognize and write theatre music that adheres to grandiose classical principles without mocking or apologizing. Andersson's work is so big, so thoroughly conceived, and so varied in style, tempo, and color that it often feels more like a symphony than a musical. Of course, making it one would mean jettisoning the specific story treatment and lyrics, losses most shows couldn't weather. But its music is so good that Kristina could be even more powerful as a result.

In Concert at Carnegie Hall
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Carnegie Hall

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